Tuesday, December 22, 2015

INTERVIEW: John Baumgartner (Speed the Plough)

Your new album, “Now”, is tremendous and not only evokes some of the bite of the classic work of your first iteration, but sounds like a natural extension of the dreamy drift of the albums that you have put out since reforming more than half a decade ago.  Can you tell me a bit about its creation and how it came together?

Well, it was put together from two sessions of recording in the spring of last year and the spring of 2015. We started off with six songs, mixed them and began to think about an EP release. But we were still rehearsing and playing out and found that folks had new things to add to the mix. So we worked up Cindi’s song and Ed’s song and a few more and decided to head back to the studio. It might seem like it was a little piecemeal, but it was just an organic process for us. In some ways, it’s very nice to make music with no set plans and no deadlines.

You have welcomed not only your own son, Mike, into the band but also now have John Demeski playing with you (father, Stanley Demeski, played in the band on 1991’s classic, “Wonder Wheel”).  How has incorporating this new generation impacted your writing and the sound of the band?

To a casual listener, I’d say the thing you’d notice is a higher energy level, as represented by some of Mike’s songs. But Michael and John have a really solid grasp of our catalog, the more acoustic side of Speed the Plough, the different time signatures, the more diverse instrumentation. As far as the writing, well, this album features contributions by four band members. And, while we’re all different kinds of songwriters, we think there’s a certain Ploughness to the approach.

“Now” also marks the first record put out by the legendary Coyote Records in over 20 years.  It must have been a thrill working with Steve Fallon again!

It’s like coming home again. It was just serendipity. Steve was never just our “label guy” or the guy who ran Maxwell’s, he’s been a dear friend for more than 30 years.

It’s obvious that you put a lot of craft into your work.   What is your songwriting process like?

I can’t speak for everyone on this, but I imagine it’s kind of similar to my experience. Songwriting, for me, is “riff” driven. Whether it’s a chord progression, a melody line, a lyric idea, it usually starts with a small, simple thing and you build from there. In my case, I’ve never had one of those fevered dreams where a song comes to you fully formed. It’s more like a melody fragment that pops into my head while I’m driving to the grocery store and I just hope i can get home quickly enough to jump on the piano and see if I can work it out.

I am fascinated by bands that reform after taking time away – what it takes to reconnect personally and musically, the impact of time and experience. What has changed for you as a creative unit this far into your career?  How do you stay inspired to create?

As much as the band has changed, personnel-wise, many times over the years, I don’t think anything’s really changed all that much. When we started with The Trypes in the early 80s we thought switching out players into different configurations was just a natural thing to do. You find the right people to do what the music calls for at that point in time. And that applies to our “hiatus” in the early 2000s. A bunch of us – me, Toni, Marc Francia, Dave Weckerman, Glenn Mercer and Stan Demeski – got together every week to play, pretty much for ourselves. Sort of a woodshedding thing for different songwriters. So when the kids urged us to resuscitate STP it seemed like we hadn’t missed a beat. They reminded us that we had some songs that people should hear again.

Oh, and inspiration comes from what’s in your heart. I hope I don’t ever get to the point where that runs out.

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

I think most songwriters would point to the last song they wrote, and there is a certain sex appeal that accrues to your latest love. For me, the songs I’ve written that I love the most are probably the ones I find hard to play these days. The songs I worked so hard on so long ago, that were so idiosyncratic, that challenged my limited keyboard skills. That said, it’s probably “A Plan, Revised.” One of the first I wrote. Totally simple. Tension and release.

What’s on tap for you next?